An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 114

   

“But the others,” I said, impelled by the memory of so many I had known in North Carolina, and knowing the same was true of many in Canada. “The Highlanders who are Loyalists?”

“Aye, well,” Hamish said softly, and looked into the fire, the lines of his face cut deep by its glow. “They fought bravely, but the heart of them was killed. They want only peace now and to be left alone. But war doesna leave any alone, does it?” He looked suddenly at me, and for a startling instant I saw Dougal MacKenzie looking out of his eyes, that impatient, violent man who had hungered for war. Not waiting for an answer, he shrugged and went on.

“War’s found them again; they’ve nay choice but to fight. But anyone can see what a pitiful rabble the Continental army is—or was.” He lifted his head, nodding a little, as though to himself, at sight of the campfires, the tents, the vast cloud of starlit haze that hung above us, full of smoke and dust and the scent of guns and ordure. “They thought the rebels would be crushed, and quickly. Oath notwithstanding, who but a fool would join such risky business?”

A man who had had no chance to fight before, I thought.

He smiled crookedly at Jamie.

“I am surprised we were not crushed,” he said, sounding in fact faintly surprised. “Are ye not surprised as well, a Sheaumais?”

“Amazed,” Jamie said, a faint smile on his own face. “Glad of it, though. And glad of you… a Sheaumais.”

They talked through most of the night. When they lapsed into Gaelic, I got up, put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder in token of good night, and crawled into my blankets. Exhausted by the day’s work, I drifted into sleep at once, soothed by the sound of their quiet talk, like the sound of bees in the heather. The last thing I saw before sleep took me was Young Ian’s face across the fire, rapt at hearing of the Scotland that had vanished just as he himself was born.

A GENTLEMAN CALLER

MRS. FRASER?” A pleasant masculine voice spoke behind me, and I turned to see a stocky, broad-shouldered officer in the doorway of my tent, in shirtsleeves and waistcoat, a box cradled in one arm.

“I am. May I help you?”

He didn’t look sick; in fact, he was healthier-looking than most of the army, his face very weathered but well-fleshed and ruddy. He smiled, a sudden, charming smile that quite transformed his big beaky nose and heavy brows.

“I was in hopes that we might transact a little business, Mrs. Fraser.” He raised one of the bushy brows and, at my gesture of invitation, came into the tent, ducking only a little.

“I suppose that depends what you’re looking for,” I said, with a curious look at his box. “If it’s whisky, I can’t give you that, I’m afraid.” There was in fact a small keg of this valuable substance hidden under the table at the moment, along with a larger keg of my raw medicinal alcohol—and the smell of the latter was strong in the air, as I was steeping herbs in it. This gentleman was not the first to have been drawn by the scent—it attracted soldiers of all ranks like flies.

“Oh, no,” he assured me, though casting an interested look at the table behind me, where I had several large jars in which I was growing what I hoped was penicillin. “I’m told, though, that you possess a stock of cinchona bark. Is that so?”

“Well, yes. Please, sit.” I waved him to my patient stool and sat down myself, knee to knee. “Do you suffer from malaria?” I didn’t think so—the whites of his eyes were clear; he wasn’t jaundiced.

“No, may the Lord be thanked for His mercy. I have a gentleman in my command—a particular friend—who does, though, very badly, and our surgeon has no Jesuit bark. I hoped that you might be induced, perhaps, to make a trade … ?”

He had laid the box on the table beside us, and at this flipped it open. It was divided into small compartments and contained a remarkable assortment of things: lace edging, silk ribbon, a pair of tortoiseshell hair combs, a small bag of salt, a pepperbox, an enameled snuffbox, a pewter brooch in the shape of a lily, several bright hanks of embroidery silk, a bundle of cinnamon sticks, and a number of small jars filled apparently with herbs. And a glass bottle, whose label read…

“Laudanum!” I exclaimed, reaching for it involuntarily. I stopped myself, but the officer gestured to me to go ahead, and I pulled it carefully from its resting place, drew the cork, and moved the bottle warily past my nose. The pungent, sickly-sweet scent of opium drifted out, a genie in a bottle. I cleared my throat and put the cork back in.

He was watching me with interest.

“I was not sure what might best suit you,” he said, waving at the box’s contents. “I used to run a store, you see—a great deal of apothecary’s stuff, but luxurious dry goods in general. I learnt in the course of my business that it is always best to give the ladies a good deal of choice; they tend to be much more discriminating than do the gentlemen.”

I gave him a sharp glance, but it wasn’t flummery; he smiled at me again, and I thought that he was one of those unusual men—like Jamie—who actually liked women, beyond the obvious.

“I imagine we can accommodate each other, then,” I said, returning the smile. “I ought not to ask, I suppose—I don’t intend to hold you up; I’ll give you what you need for your friend—but with thought of possible future trade, have you got more laudanum?”

He continued to smile, but his gaze sharpened—he had rather unusual eyes, that pale gray often described as “spit-colored.”

“Why, yes,” he said slowly. “I have quite a bit. Do you… require it regularly?”

It occurred to me that he was wondering whether I was an addict; it wasn’t at all uncommon, in circles where laudanum was easily obtainable.

“I don’t use it myself, no,” I replied equably. “And I administer it to those in need with considerable caution. But relief of pain is one of the more important things I can offer some of the people who come to me—God knows I can’t offer many of them cure.”

His brows went up at that. “That’s a rather remarkable statement. Most persons in your profession seem to promise cure to nearly everyone.”

“How does that saying go? ‘If wishes were horses, beggars might ride’?” I smiled, but without much humor. “Everyone wants a cure, and certainly there’s no physician who doesn’t want to give them one. But there are a lot of things beyond the power of any physician, and while you might not tell a patient that, it’s as well to know your own limits.”

“You think so?” He tilted his head, regarding me curiously. “Do you not think that the admission of such limits, a priori—and I do not mean only in the medical way, but in any arena of endeavor—that such an admission in itself establishes limits? That is, might that expectation prevent one from accomplishing all that is possible, because one assumes that something is not possible and therefore does not strive with all one’s power to achieve it?”

I blinked at him, rather surprised.

“Well… yes,” I said slowly. “If you put it that way, I rather think I agree with you. After all”—I waved a hand toward the tent flap, indicating the surrounding army—“if I didn’t—we didn’t—believe that one can accomplish things beyond all reasonable expectation, would my husband and I be here?”

He laughed at that.

“Brava, ma’am! Yes, an impartial observer would, I think, call this venture sheer madness. And they might be right,” he added, with a rueful tilt of the head. “But they’ll have to defeat us, nonetheless. We shan’t give up.”

I heard voices outside: Jamie, talking casually with someone, and in the next moment he had ducked inside the tent.

“Sassenach,” he began, “can ye come and—” He stopped dead, seeing my visitor, and drew up a bit, with a formal bow. “Sir.”

I glanced back at the visitor, surprised; Jamie’s manner made it clear that this was a superior officer of some sort; I’d thought him perhaps a captain or a major. As for the officer himself, he nodded, friendly but reserved.

“Colonel. Your wife and I have been discussing the philosophy of endeavor. What do you say—does a wise man know his limits, or a bold one deny them? And which way do you declare yourself?”

Jamie looked mildly startled and glanced at me; I lifted one shoulder an inch.

“Ah, well,” he said, switching his attention back to my visitor. “I’ve heard it said that a man’s reach must exceed his grasp—or what’s a heaven for?”

The officer stared at him for an instant, mouth open, then laughed with delight and slapped his knee.

“You and your wife are two of a kind, sir! My kind. That’s splendid; do you recall where you heard it?”

Jamie did; he’d heard it from me, more than once over the years. He merely smiled and shrugged, though.

“A poet, I believe, but I’ve forgot the name.”

“Well, a perfectly expressed sentiment, nonetheless, and I mean to go and try it on Granny directly—though I imagine he’ll just blink stupidly at me through his spectacles and bleat about supplies. There’s a man who knows his limits,” he remarked to me, still good-humored but with a distinct edge in his voice. “Knows his own damnably low limits and won’t let anyone else exceed them. A heaven’s not for the likes of him.”

That last remark went beyond edgy; the smile had faded from his face, and I glimpsed a hot anger at the back of his pale eyes. I had a moment of disquiet; “Granny” could only be General Gates, and this man was plainly a disaffected member of the high command. I sincerely hoped Robert Browning and I hadn’t just landed Jamie in the middle of something.

“Well,” I said, trying to make light of it, “they can’t defeat you if you won’t give up.”

The shadow that had rested on his brow cleared and he smiled at me, merry-eyed once more.

“Oh, they’ll never defeat me, Mrs. Fraser. Trust me!”

“I will,” I assured him, turning to open one of my boxes. “Let me get the Jesuit bark for you… er…” I hesitated, not knowing his rank, and he noticed, clapping a hand to his forehead in apology.

“My apologies, Mrs. Fraser! What can you think of a man who bursts into your presence, rudely demanding medicaments and failing even to introduce himself properly?”

He took the small package of shredded bark from my hand, retaining the hand itself, and bowed low over it, gently kissing my knuckles.

“Major General Benedict Arnold. Your servant, ma’am.”

JAMIE LOOKED AFTER the departing general, a slight frown on his face. Then he glanced back at me and the frown disappeared instantly.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach? Ye look as though you’re about to fall over.”

“I might, at that,” I said rather faintly, and groped for my stool. I sat on it and discovered the new bottle of laudanum on the table beside me. I picked it up, finding the solid weight of it a reassurance that I hadn’t imagined the gentleman who’d just left us.

“I was mentally prepared to run into George Washington or Benjamin Franklin in person at some point,” I said. “Even John Adams. But I didn’t really expect him… and I liked him,” I added ruefully.

Jamie’s brows were still up, and he glanced at the bottle in my lap as though wondering whether I’d been having a nip.

“Why should ye not like—oh.” His face changed. “Ye know something about him?”

“Yes, I do. And it’s not something I want to know.” I swallowed, feeling a little ill. “He’s not a traitor yet—but he will be.”

Jamie glanced back over his shoulder, to be sure we were not overheard, then came and sat on the patient’s stool, taking my hands in his.

“Tell me,” he said, low-voiced.

There were limits to what I could tell him—and, not for the first time, I regretted not having paid more attention to Bree’s history homework, as that formed the nucleus of my specific knowledge regarding the American Revolution.

“He fought on our—on the American side for some time, and was a brilliant soldier, though I don’t know any of the details of that. But at some point, he became disillusioned, decided to switch sides, and began making overtures to the British, using a man called John André as his go-between—André was captured and hanged, I know that much. But I think Arnold got away to England. For an American general to turn his coat… it was such a spectacular act of treason that the name ‘Benedict Arnold’ became a synonym for traitor. Will become, I mean. If someone commits some horrible act of betrayal, you call them ‘a Benedict Arnold.’ ”

The sick feeling hadn’t gone away. Somewhere—right this minute—one Major John André was happily going about his business, presumably without the slightest notion of what lay in his future.

“When?” Jamie’s fingers pressing mine drew my attention away from Major André’s impending doom and back to the more urgent matter.

“That’s the problem,” I said helplessly. “I don’t know. Not yet—I think not yet.”

Jamie thought for a moment, brows drawn down.

“I’ll watch him, then,” he said quietly.

“Don’t,” I said, by reflex. We stared at each other for a long moment, recalling Charles Stuart. It hadn’t escaped either of us that attempting to interfere with history could have serious unintended consequences—if in fact it could be done at all. We had no notion what it was that might turn Arnold from patriot—which he certainly was at the moment—to the traitor he would be. Was his fight with Gates the niggling grain of sand that would form the heart of a treacherous pearl?

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